Lawrence should adopt a local minimum wage that forces most sizable businesses to pay at least several dollars more than the federal minimum wage.
That is one of the main ideas of a newly formed political organization that hopes to become a force at City Hall. Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commissioner David Burress, Kansas University associate professor Kirk McClure and about a dozen other Lawrence residents have formed Grassroots Action, a Lawrence-based nonprofit that hopes to lobby city and county leaders for "progressive change."
"What I mean by progressive is progress for ordinary people, trying to make the lives of ordinary people better," said Burress, a retired KU economist.
Increasing the wages of "ordinary people" will be high on the group's list. Burress and McClure said the group is putting together a proposal for a local minimum wage ordinance that would require businesses to pay wages that allow their workers to meet or exceed the city's poverty level.
Burress estimated that would require a wage of around $8 per hour, but McClure said the group still is discussing whether a minimum wage should be higher than that. The federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour.
McClure said the group also is discussing whether all businesses in the city should be made to comply or whether it should be based on a business' size.
The group could propose a system similar to one in Santa Fe, N.M., where employers with more than 24 people on the payroll must pay above the city's minimum wage, which started at $8.50 an hour but is set to increase to $9.50 an hour in 2007.
A different concept
The proposal would be different than Lawrence's adopted living wage ordinance. That city law requires companies that receive a tax abatement to pay a living wage of at least $10.38 per hour, which is 130 percent of the federal poverty level. It does not put any wage requirements on other businesses in the community.
Lavern Squier, president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, said a discussion of a citywide minimum wage was part of the dialogue when the city approved the living wage ordinance in 2003.
"This kind of falls into the 'been there, done that' category," Squier said. "We would have to have serious discussions about any proposal. From what I've heard, communities that have wrestled with this have found it to be an unpleasant process.
"There are negative impacts from both inside and outside the community because it is such a divisive topic."
McClure, who is an associate professor in urban planning, said the group is interested in the minimum wage issue because its members think the federal minimum wage has done little to keep up with inflation, and that Lawrence historically has wages lower than the statewide average or those in nearby Kansas City.
"We have tried to determine how much of that is related to being a college town, but we don't believe it can all be attributed to that," McClure said.
A minimum wage law is not the only idea the group has. It also intends to study:
¢ The concept of formula zoning. It could be used to create a zoning category that would limit the number of chain retailers in any one block of downtown. Burress said that concept may be a way to preserve downtown's unique character.
¢ A local law to require health benefits be offered to employees of major retail chains.
¢ Ways to ensure the city's housing and retail growth do not outpace the city's population growth.
The group plans to be different than the existing Progressive Lawrence Campaign, which is a political action committee that helped with the campaigns of city commissioners Boog Highberger, Mike Rundle and David Schauner.
Burress said the Grassroots Action group would not register as a PAC, which would prohibit it from raising money for candidates. He said current plans call for the group to focus on promoting ideas rather than endorsing candidates or helping run their campaigns.
The group is having an organizational meeting open to the public at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.